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Plato’s Critique Of Democracy: The Equality of Unequals

In order to clearly understand why Plato seems to find democracy and the democratic soul so objectionable one must first understand the definition of what democracy means. Platos discord with democracy does not concern the democracy we know today nor does it directly concern Athenian democracy. Rather, it is the form of democracy in which he criticizes. For a Greek (man), democracy, meant the rule of the people in a much more literal sense than it does for the citizens of most of the modern states which claim to be democracies.

Plato’s charge against democracy is simply that it violates the proper order of society by creating artificial equality. His fundamental criticism of democracy is (essentially) that it is an irrational form of the constitution. It is based on the assumption that every citizen is equally entitled to a say in political affairs, no matter how unsuited he is in terms of ability, character or training. Basically, no matter how ignorant a person may be, they still could find themselves playing a significant role in public affairs. The key to a successful political career lay in being able to speak persuasively for this reason the art of oratory or public speaking came to be highly valued.

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A system where value and merit are disregarded and instead unconditional equality promoted disgusted Plato. Plato and Socrates both felt that all people were born with knowledge but that not all people were in touch with the knowledge they possessed. It was through a process of questioning that simply made them recall what was already ingrained. Plato throughout the book rejected the idea that all men are equals. Instead of supposing every man is innately good, Plato holds that every man has a right to pursue the good. Socrates and Plato both believed with much support that all men should strive to reach the highest forms of knowledge.

Socrates believed in three parts of the individual soul- sensation, emotion, and intelligence. Each part must function in moderation to contribute to the health of the whole. Desire must be inferior to reason, or else it will throw the individual out of balance and lead him into injustice and unhappiness. Emotion can also master desire with the alliance of reason. This alliance according to Socrates is similar to the rulers and guardians of the state. Therefore, the individual is a sort of miniature state, and justice in the soul is like justice in the state. On the contrary, the situation of the unjust, whether state or individual, desires hold a tyranny.

Because of a lack of internal control, outside things move the unjust person/state around at will. The unjust ends up living a life of fear and anxiety, the essence of being out of control. Socrates states that only the man of reason has pure pleasures. All others have varying degrees of unhappiness. By equating the philosopher with the man of pure reason, he sets up a situation where proof is not so much necessary for any of his points as it is to say that the philosopher, the only one who sees clearly, says so. It is these men, the philosophers, who best understood the harmony of all parts of the universe were closest to God and that only they were capable of creating a harmonious and just society. These philosophers, he believed, would agree and get along with each other with equal harmony rather than break into hostile factions.

Until philosophers are kings or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils- or the human race as I believe, – and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.

Socrates and Plato also believed that man was not self-sufficient, they believed the man would be most happy living in a State. They also believed that all men wanted to live the truly good life where they could be in tune with the truth and achieve their ultimate goals. Plato believed A State comes into existence because no individual is self-sufficient. This indicates the importance of a State to an individual according to Plato.

Plato had specific ideas of an ideal society based on the ideas of Socrates, a society able to provide a livelihood for its people, a society free of what he saw as the self-serving individualism and commercialism of Athens, and a society unified by a harmony of interests. Socrates’ account of the ideal regime and its characteristics is based around a revolution of one man; the philosopher. For the ideal regime to come into existence, one enlightened individual must first see the light and rise above the conventional lies and perversions of the truth that litter man’s life and live a life of philosophy and search for the truth.

The inherent flaw in democracy is precise that the masses who don’t have access to the Form of the Good are in possession of political power in the city, for what appears as equality in a democracy is the negation of social order and social hierarchy, and what appears as liberty in a democracy is the negation of social type and social training. Plato deems the perfectly just city as possessing social order, social hierarchy, social type and social training therefore regarding democracy as the negation of justice.

Platos ideas, philosophies and beliefs are extremely detailed ranging from his thoughts on an ideal person and how that person should live life to his beliefs in what an ideal society consists of. He distrusted democracy and believed that it would eventually evolve into tyranny as people who do not know just from unjust run it. It seems Plato disagreed with everything in his world, he became convinced that the way people went around living was wrong and that if they only knew the truth, or what he believed, then a much more peaceful society would be formed. In the Republic, Plato has many ideals, but in reality, ideals are not reality.

I don’t believe life is supposed to exemplify society’s ideals because there is no way to know what a perfect life would consist of. It is possible to theorize and philosophize but at the end of the day what you still are left with is a society of people who all think differently, and who all have individual morals and beliefs on the purpose of life. It is these differences I believe that making the world the interesting and diverse place it is today.


Background to Platos Philosophy: The Political Background.

Background to Platos Philosophy: The Political Background.

Background to Platos Philosophy: The Political Background.

ClassicNotes: The Republic Book VIII.

Platos Politics.

Plato. Republic translated by G.M.A Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1992.

Plato. Republic translated by G.M.A Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1992.

Ideas from Anaxagoras to Aristotle: Plato.

Barker, Ernest. Greek Political Theory: Plato and his Predecessors, London: Methuen & Co., 1951., pg256.

Plato. Republic translated by G.M.A Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1992.

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